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The language he once was punished for speaking in school became Chester Nez’s primary weapon in World War II.
Before hundreds of men from the Navajo Nation became Code Talkers, Nez and 28 others were recruited to develop a code based on the then-unwritten Navajo language.
Nez never tired of telling the story to highlight his pride in having served his country and stress the importance of preserving the Navajo language. The 93-year-old died Wednesday morning of kidney failure with plenty of appearances still scheduled, said Judith Avila, who helped Nez publish his memoirs. He was the last of the original group of 29 Navajo Code Talkers.
He was scheduled to discuss his memoir June 14 in Jemez Springs.
“It’s one of the greatest parts of history that we used our own native language during World War II,” Nez told The Associated Press in 2009. “We’re very proud of it.”
Nez was in 10th grade when he lied about his age to enlist in the United States Marine Corps not knowing he would become part of an elite group of Code Talkers. He wondered whether the code would work since the Japanese were skilled code breakers.
Few non-Navajos spoke the Navajo language, and even those who did couldn’t decipher the code. It proved impenetrable. The Navajos trained in radio communications were walking copies of it. Each message read aloud by a Code Talker immediately was destroyed.
Nez grew up speaking only Navajo in Two Wells, on the eastern side of the Navajo Nation. He gained English as a second language while attending boarding school.
When a Marine recruiter came looking for young Navajos who were fluent in Navajo and English to serve in World War II, Nez said he told his roommate “let’s try it out.”
About 250 Navajos showed up at Fort Defiance, then a U.S. Army base. But only 29 were selected to join the first all-Native American unit of Marines. They were inducted in May 1942 and became the 382nd Platoon tasked with developing the code. At the time, Navajos weren’t even allowed to vote.
After World War II, Nez volunteered to serve two more years during the Korean War. He retired in 1974 after a 25-year career as a painter at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Albuquerque. His artwork featuring 12 Navajo holy people was on display at the hospital.
For years, Nez’s family and friends knew only that he fought the Japanese during World War II.
Nez was eager to tell his family more about his role as a Code Talker, Avila said, but he couldn’t. Their mission wasn’t declassified until 1968.
In 2012, he received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas, where he abandoned his studies in fine arts decades ago after tuition assistance he received for his military service ran out.
U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, and Rep. Ben Ray Luján praised Nez for his bravery and service to the United States.